(Bloomberg) -- UK Labour Party leader Keir Starmer vowed to end the use of costly hotels for migrants and recruit over 1,000 government caseworkers to clear the backlog in asylum claims, as he ramped up efforts to position his opposition party as tough but pragmatic in dealing with immigration.
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A Labour government would invest in temporary “Nightingale” courts — like the so-called Nightingale hospitals set up during the Covid-19 pandemic — to ensure more appeals are heard and removals processed quickly, the party said in an emailed statement.
A new “returns unit” would also be created to triage and fast-track the removal of people who don’t have a right to stay in Britain, with a further 1,000 staff hired here to ensure enforcement. Starmer has accused Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who has repeatedly pledged to stop asylum seekers arriving in small boats from France, of losing control of the UK’s borders — a particularly sensitive issue for Tory voters after the promises of Brexit campaigners.
The government is under pressure over the number of crossings — often run by criminal gangs — as costs to the taxpayer soar amid a record backlog of asylum claims. More than 175,000 people were waiting for a decision on their claims in June, according to latest government figures.
With a UK general election expected in 2024, Starmer has picked one of the hot-button issues in British politics to take on the Tories, a move that looks in part designed to counter criticism that he’s too cautious and that his plans have lacked detail.
Labour is also seeking a formal returns agreement with the European Union for migrants whose claims of asylum or other status are rejected in the UK courts. Starmer visited the Hague in the Netherlands on Thursday as he attempted to secure a provisional agreement with the European Union’s policing body, Europol, and will meet French President Emmanuel Macron next week as he continues his international outreach.
“Tory chaos at our borders and in the asylum system is costing taxpayers billions and must come to an end,” Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said in the statement. “Labour has a serious plan to end the government’s wasteful spending on hotels and return people who have no right to be here.”
Hotels will cease to be used for asylum seekers once the backlog has been cleared, under Labour’s plans, and instead “asylum accommodation” will be used which has space for 58,000 people at any one time.
The risk for Starmer is that he gets drawn into a battle of perceptions that the Tories have long been geared up for. That began immediately on Thursday, when the governing party said his proposed returns agreement would effectively allow the EU to dictate how many migrants the UK accepts in exchange for cooperation.
The Conservative Party said in an emailed statement that would mean more than 100,000 people a year. But that’s based on the formula used among current EU members, rather than any agreement the UK might reach with the bloc.
“It’s embarrassing that the government is pumping out this nonsense,” Starmer told broadcasters. “I can only assume it’s because they’ve got nothing sensible to say on the issue.”
Sunak’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters the government is also open to a returns deal with the EU — but that it would not accept an immigration quota in exchange. “There are discussions ongoing, so I’m not going to get into whether or not we would or would not fund any further cooperation,” he said.
Meanwhile the government’s plan to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda has been beset by legal challenges. Labour has said that if it is elected, it will scrap the Rwanda plan and instead invest more in the National Crime Agency, which tackles people trafficking.
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